Rafting Season has returned to the Salt this year and writer Kim Stone took a trip with the SaltRiverRafting Co, SRR this last weekend to share with our readers.
After a quick 40 minute drive on US 60 from Globe to the bottom of Salt River Canyon, I parked in the staging area for Raftingsaltriver.com. I had booked a one day, ten mile trip down the Salt River that floated through no less than 13 Class II and III whitewater rapids.
Our guide was John, a friendly and engaging guy in his early 30s. Not only had he been a river guide on the Salt River for the past ten years, he spent his summers doing the same thing on the Arkansas River in Colorado. So he had what was at the top of my list of requirements: plenty of experience.
The air and water temperatures are still cold in early March, so Raftingsaltriver.com supplies wetsuits, neoprene booties, and splash jackets. They also issue bright yellow helmets and PFD’s (life jackets). The guides make sure that each PFD is corset tight. “If you can’t breath, you can’t drown,” they tell you as they cinch down the straps.
After suiting up, John put us through the obligatory safety lesson. Unlike an airline safety talk given by a flight attendant, we listened to this one. The bottom line? Stay in the boat.
Our raft (the Mellow Yellow) was a paddle boat, which meant that our group of five were not only passengers, but paddlers. John was the sixth, and he sat high on the far right quarter of the boat on top of the inflated tube that formed the framework of the craft. From here, he used his paddle as a rudder and issued very specific paddling orders for us to follow.
For instance, “Forward 1” meant that each paddler on both sides dug a paddle into the water with one strong pull. “Forward 2” meant two strong pulls. As long as we followed his instructions, we were sure to have the time of our lives.
In the two hours before we reached our lunch spot, we passed through eight different rapids rated between Class II and Class III. After the first, we looked at each other as if to say, “No, this is definitely not Splash Mountain.
The boat climbs up a three foot wave at a thirty degree angle, then plows into another on its way down that soaks everyone in the front seat.
Then, without warning, the raft pitches to the left, and another wave hits me in the chest, dripping down the inside of my PFD. John barks “Back Right 2!” Everyone on the rights side responds with two strokes backward while those on the left paddle two forward. And the boat turns to the right.
The splashes and pitching and yawing keep coming and then, as if regurgitated, we are spit out into the calm water below the rapid. I pull my wet phone from under my PFD and make a mental note to myself: “You idiot, don’t bring your iPhone next time.”
There were always periods of calm water between rapids, and our guide, John, took the opportunity to tell stories about the plants, animals, geology, and Native American history that are part of the river.
“Are there any horror stories?” someone asks. “I’ll tell you after we’re done,” he says with a smile.
At the halfway point, we pulled our raft onto a beach at Second Campground and dried out next to a smoky drift wood fire with a welcome hot lunch of fajitas. After lunch, there were five rapids to go before we ended the trip at the take out point called Hoo Doo.
The last stretch of whitewater, a Class III rapid called Mescal, was perhaps the most anticipated because of a hydraulic hole on the river left side that we needed to avoid. “Be ready to paddle hard on the left,” John told us as we approached.
From the start, we had been instructed to stick one of our feet under the inflated seat in front us to keep us from falling out the boat. In preparation for Mescal, I placed both feet under the seat in front of me just to be sure.
But John steered us through it masterfully, giving us the paddling instructions we needed to raft another day. Every rapid during the trip was a different sort of challenge. And each one required the effort of every paddler on the boat to make it through. It was enormously satisfying.
The road trip back to our cars on the White Mountain Apache side of the river takes about 40 minutes. With three creek crossings, including Cibecue Creek, it’s an adventure itself.
This year, with the copious amounts of snow melt runoff that is expected this spring, the rafting season will probably last through March and April, possibly into May. As of this writing in early March, the river is running at a robust 3500 cubic feet per minute.
Raftingsaltriver.com also offers a half day trip, as well as multi-day trips. One of the longest floats down all 52 miles of the Salt River from the bridge on US 60 to the bridge that crosses the Salt River on SR 288.
That’s the trip that I’m planning to do next.
Kim Stone was a horticulturist, writer, and editor of several publications for the University of Arizona at Boyce Thompson Arboretum over the better part of three decades. He is now happily self-absorbed in freelance writing, travel, and content marketing.